More than 30,000 readers descended on Legislative Plaza in downtown Nashville October 11–13 for the 25th annual Southern Festival of Books. Many of those fans partook of the extensive children’s and young adult programming, from the Where’s Waldo birthday party on Saturday to Rick Riordan’s packed event at the War Memorial Auditorium on Sunday to the slew of standing room-only YA panels. “It’s been a while since I’ve been to Nashville,” Riordan told PW before the start of the festival, “and I am looking forward to seeing so many friends and fans.” With more than 1,000 readers attending his closing of the three-day event, it’s fair to say he wasn’t the only one excited to connect.

On Saturday, Kevin Henkes delighted fans by sharing the inspiration for The Year of Billy Miller (his son, Will), offered insight into his process, and read a few of his favorite reader letters: “Dear Kevin Henkes, Your books are so good, I can hardly read them.” Getting the books out so they can be read – or barely read – is the whole point, Henkes noted. “When a book is finished, that is really the beginning,” he said. “Teachers, librarians, and parents take them and they become a part of people’s lives.”

In the Zombie Tales of the Undead for Teens and Tweens panel, the notion of creating books that kids want in their lives led the discussion. “You start kids reading by meeting them where they are, said Paolo Bacigalupi (Zombie Baseball Beatdown). “From there, they can become readers and go on to read widely.” He noted that if you present kids with a story they want to read, they’re likely to want to keep reading, and isn’t that the point? T. Michael Martin (The End Games) summed the panel up this way: “The goal is not to reinvent the [zombie] genre, but to give the audience what they want in a way they’d never expect it.”

Giving the audience what they want is precisely what Erin and Philip Stead (A Sick Day for Amos McGee) did in their panel, Talented Twosome: Making Quiet Picture Books in a Loud World. The husband-wife duo shared with the standing room-only crowd their illustration process, described the often-unintentional collaborations that result from their proximity to each other, and detailed their extensive resume of well- and lesser-known talents. “When you become an illustrator,” Philip said after Erin shared a clip of his ability to cut out a perfect circle by hand, “you gain a lot of really useless skills you can do better than anyone else.” The pair also showed a video of Erin grinding pastels, adding water, and creating a mud to paint with. But as Henkes had said earlier, creating the book is only the beginning. “The most important thing is, I get to make books,” Erin said, “and as soon as we’re done making one, it’s not ours anymore. It’s everybody else’s.” That, she added, “is tops.”

One of the most spirited panels was Young Love: YA Authors Discuss Their Latest Romance Novels, featuring Jennifer E. Smith (This Is What Happy Looks Like), Sarah Dessen (The Moon and More), and Lauren Morrill (Meant to Be). The trio covered everything from their insecurity as authors to Smith and Dessen’s shared aversion to mayonnaise to offering encouragement and advice to aspiring YA writers. Dessen noted, “I try to stick with writing about things that haven’t changed [about] high school. Themes like firsts – first love, job, and the push and pull of friendships.” Smith, who said she stays close to her inner 16-year-old, agreed: “Core issues like heartbreak stick with you.” All three agreed that insecurity is part of being a writer. Dessen’s currently writing her 12th novel, but the challenge never fades. The greatest misconception readers may have about her, she believes, is “that I know what I’m doing. I don’t. I just push through. I love what I do, and feel so fortunate to do it.” All three advised that aspiring authors should write the book they want to read. As Morrill said, “All trends come and go. Don’t chase trends, just write your own book.”

An Embarrassment of Riches

Among the 325 authors speaking, writers for teens were well represented. “This was my first time at the Southern Festival of Books” said Terra Elan McVoy (Criminal). “It’s beautifully organized, and it was so nice for everything to be within such close proximity. There were so many authors, it was very difficult to choose who to see, but perhaps that is a good problem to have. Getting to talk with Gabrielle Zevin and J.J. Howard about consequences in YA was a pleasure – and a learning experience.”

Sunday’s Decisions and Consequences panel with McVoy, Zevin (the Birthright trilogy), and J.J. Howard (That Time I Joined the Circus) explored the importance of place in a story, how authors use technology to signify time and place, and what it means to write YA. “Everything feels extraordinarily crucial as a teen,” said Howard. “The weight, as a teen, on making a decision is huge.” McVoy clarified that young adult “is not part of a genre; it is a perspective.” All YA books, the authors agreed, tackle a journey or quest from a teen’s perspective. As Zevin said, “Part of the YA appeal is, we’re talking about a moment in people’s lives where the decision they make is really important.”

During another young adult panel, Seeking Truth and Finding Freedom: Science Fiction YA Novels with Fierce Protagonists, the authors – C.J. Redwine (Deception), Kat Zhang (Once We Were), and Amy Rose Capetta (Entangled) – discussed how romance is a part of their novels but not the focus, and how strength is not necessarily physical.As Redwine told PW after the panel, “Often, young adults are struggling to find their own paths, to see an outcome for themselves that is separate from the outcome that peer pressure and unrealistic cultural standards seem to expect. A fierce protagonist who identifies what is uniquely his or her strength and then uses it to choose to do the right thing in the face of nearly insurmountable odds is a trailblazer for readers who need a road map for how to do that very thing for themselves.”

As the weekend drew to a close, Rick Riordan took stage to the roar of an excited audience to discuss the fourth book in the Heroes of Olympus series, The House of Hades. He strolled down memory lane, sharing photos of his middle-school teachers, and showing the evolution of his obsession with “the Norse dudes.” He said of his love of reading, “As a kid, the only things I really liked to read were the things I wasn’t supposed to be [reading].” It was his discovery of the Lord of the Rings series, and the influence of one exceptional teacher, that turned him into a writer. In response to one fan’s question about whether he misses teaching, Riordan said, “I love teaching – it’s always my favorite thing. I still feel like a teacher; it’s just now, I’m teaching millions.”